As The Expendables looks to blow its way onto the big screen, Lionsgate has returned to the somewhat honorable practice of releasing tie-in titles on Blu-ray. This includes an extended cut of Rambo, the 1989 Sylvester Stallone prison picture Lock Up, and – from the same year – the Walter Hill minor classic Johnny Handsome. Though Rambo was made twenty years after the fact, they all feel very late 80’s in their way, which is perfect in setting the tone for The Expendables. All of the three are very enjoyable in a machismo, cheap beer sort of way, and with talents like Stallone, Donald Sutherland, Tom Sizemore, Sonny Landam, John Amos, Frank McRae, Mickey Rourke, Lance Henriksen, Ellen Barkin, Morgan Freeman, and Forrest Whitaker adding oomph to the cast, there’s a lot of red meat to chew on. My reviews of the Rambo: Extended Cut, Lock Up, and Johnny Handsome on Blu-ray after the jump.
The extended cut of Rambo is nothing to get excited about at all, sadly. For the new version, they’ve added some footage (an additional nine minutes), and restructured the film some, which plays up Rambo’s moral conflict. I’ve read others suggest this strengthens Sylvester Stallone’s message, but frankly, the appeal of the film to me has always been the violence. What may be most notable about Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo is its brutal efficiency. It could arguably be called plodding and graceless – lumbering even – but never does it waste a step in getting there. The new cut doesn’t tamper with that too much, but the differences seem negligible.
John Rambo (Stallone) has been living near Thailand catching snakes, living off the grid in some form of penance/hiding. What disturbs him from this self-imposed exile is a group of missionaries headed up by Julie Benz. She appeals to his humanity and gets him to agree to take them in to the war torn area. But in doing so the group is assaulted, which leads Rambo to show he still knows how to kick some ass. Cut to a couple months later and the father of one of the missionaries has hired mercenaries to help rescue the group. They’ve been taken by some nasty military men who are so evil that the main captain is a pedophile. That’s how evil he is. Which is pretty evil, all things, but it also explains why he hasn’t subjected Julie Benz to rape though has let hogs eat the legs off of one of her people.
So who is to lead this rag-tag bag of mercs into the way? That’d be John Rambo.
Though I’d never argue that Rambo is a great film (though it is one of the best action films of the last ten years) – what it is is motherfuckin’ violent. And if Stallone can’t hide in the mud and stalk his prey as effectively as he used to, he sure as shit can operate an M-50, and blow people’s legs off. And – you know – that’s entertainment. When I saw the film in the theater I realized I love having my bloodlust sated. You sit there gob-smacked that a modern film could feature so much gore – it feels like a Golan Globus production circa 1983. And in its way, Rambo becomes a distillation of not what Rambo was, but the concept we as an audience have of Rambo. The original films are completely different – with the first film featuring little on screen violence – but in the interim, Rambo became the greatest commie-killer, etc. in the history of cinema (and he might be). And in this film, especially because of the budget and Stallone’s age, using his predilection for quick and nasty violence is going to get the job done. And boy, if you like your films filled with gore-tastic kills, then there are few equals – the only film that comes to mind is The Story of Riki.
The Blu-Ray edition comes in a 7.1 DTS-HD kick-ass mix and in widescreen (2.35:1). It looks insane, super clean, everything you’d expect from a Blu-ray transfer of a recent release. Missing from the earlier release is the commentary by Stallone “Also gone are all the previous featurettes, replaced by a behind the scenes mini-movie called “Rambo: To Hell and Back – Director’s Production Diary” (84 min.), which walks through the film’s 44-day production schedule. It’s also the best reason to upgrade – though you’re not going to get too much on-set conflict, it does show the process better than most.
Twenty years earlier, Stallone was in the then-panned prison film Lock Up, which the passage of time has done nothing but make look all the better. It starts with Stallone on a release program, but he’s transferred by an evil warden (Donald Sutherland), because Stallone’s Frank Leone broke out to see his dying father. Since public opinion turned against Sutherland’s Warden Drumgoole, he’s holding a big grudge. Stallone tries to make a go of it in the new prison, making friends with some of the cons, but Drumgoole is using toughie Chink Webber (Sonny Landam) to bully Leone and his friends (who include Tom Sizemore and Frank McRae). The warden wants to push Frank to the edge and over, so he’ll prove that he was always the good guy in the situation.
Directed by John Flynn, best known for Rolling Thunder and Out for Justice, this is more of a prison film than action film, so there’s a lot of time spent delineating the roles of the characters. Stallone bonds with the guys when they build a car together, and so there’s a montage of assembly and horsing around. There’s a football game where Frank has to take a lot of punishment to prove he’s no pussy or snitch. There’s the classic black friend character, the new guy who has to learn the ropes, and the stool pigeon. Flynn was always a solid director, someone who mostly flew under the radar and probably never deserved to be celebrated as a great, but understood how to craft a solid actioner. As such, this is a well-put together film with good performances throughout, and is one of Stallone’s all around best films of the 1980’s. Where many of his movies rest on their camp appeal (like many of the Rocky sequels), this is holds together well.
The Blu-ray comes in widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 surround. This is an excellent transfer of a late eighties film, it looks like some care was done in the update. There’s a period making of (7 min.) with a lot of Stallone interview footage, and a “Stallone Profile” (3 min.). There’s also some behind the scenes footage (8 min.) on the set, and interviews with Stallone (5 min.), Donald Sutherland (1 min.) Sonny Landam (1 min.), John Amos (1 min.), and Darlene Fuegel (1 min.), most of which were excerpted in the making of. The film also comes with its theatrical trailer and video and audio calibration pages.
Walter Hill was always a noir kind of guy. When you look at his early films – though he moved easily into action – The Driver comes across as one of his most personal or significant films. There are elements of this in all of his films, but Johnny Handsome, like Streets of Fire, seems to be close to his interests. I’ve heard word that the film was tinkered with, but it still plays close to the sort of film it should be.
Mickey Rourke plays Johnny “Handsome” Sedley, best known for his deformed face and brilliant criminal mind. He orchestrates a robbery with his buddy Mikey (Scott Wilson), but they bring in two people to help – Sunny Boyd (Ellen Barkin) and Rafe Garrett (Lance Henriksen) who have no intention of sharing the loot. Mickey gets killed and Johnny goes down. In prison he meets Dr. Steven Fisher (Forrest Whitaker), who is able to fix his face, and it gives him a chance at a new life. But new face or no, Lt. A.Z. Drones (Morgan Freeman) thinks that Johnny is doomed to the life and will eventually get busted or killed.
Once on the streets Johnny works the docks, and meets Donna McCarty (Elizabeth McGovern), and Rourke’s performance and reticence with her is beautiful in that it bespeaks a man who spent his life feeling ugly. But his dreams mostly end at revenge, and so he targets Sunny and Rafe in the hopes of splitting them apart and getting them killed. All the while Drones checks in with a watchful eye.
This is a modern noir, with all the trappings of genre, from predestination to the Madonna/femme fatale romantic interests – the film stays within the bounds of genre, while also finding a slightly new way to go about presenting the ultimate tragedy of the events. This is a stellar cast that covers a lot of different sensibilities in terms of performance and genre work, but in that way it also feels like a B noir of the late forties, where Bogart rubbed shoulders with Dan Dureya and Elisha Cook Jr. And everyone is bringing some game to the table, so it’s fun to watch scenes where Freeman and Whitaker bounce off each other, each with their own specific energies. It’s a small miracle of a picture, and it’s nice that it’s finally widescreen.
But as for this Blu-ray, the transfer is shoddy. The film has changed owners more than once, so Lionsgate may be working with the best available materials, but the transfer is not that great – all things, and the soundtrack is in 2.0 DTS-HD. Extras are slim pickings, but they did what they could: “Wordsmith” (13 min) lets the author of the book the film was based on – Ken Friedman – talk about the film and how he feels it got noir. “Eye of the Beholder” (10 min) speaks to Michael Westmore about his make-up work while “Action Man” (11 min.) gets co-star and stunt coordinator Allan Graff to dish on the stunt work. The film’s theatrical trailer and a photo gallery are also included.